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Historically disadvantaged rural communities face hunger at disproportionately higher rates, hidden by a lack of wider knowledge and understanding on the depth of the problem. At Deep South Food Alliance, we strive to advance historically disadvantaged rural communities and reduce food insecurity by supporting agriculture economies, particularly low-resource smallholder farmers of color. This approach focuses on the Black Belt—an area known for its large rural population and low median income—in order to help rural farmers grow and bring businesses to the Black Belt region, ultimately abating the hunger crisis. However, to develop sustainable agriculture and food systems, one must first understand the obstacles people face in the Black Belt, specifically the issues of a declining youth population, inadequate housing, and high rates of obesity (also described as excess adiposity).
When considering the different obstacles that people may face in the West Alabama Blackbelt area, there appears to be a general decline in growth that exacerbates poverty, specifically seen with young people. Many young people are leaving the Black Belt, choosing to move away for better job opportunities with better pay that are available outside of this area. Once they move away, it is hard to convince them to return “home” after they have gotten used to a different way of life. According to the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research, many counties in the Black Belt of Alabama are experiencing a population decline as a result. From 2010 to 2020, nine counties lost over 10 percent of their population, with one losing as much as 19.6 percent of the population—the largest population drop in the state. Although some population changes are caused by lower birth rates (3.9 percent lower than in 2010) and higher death rates due to COVID (35.2 percent higher than in 2010), these counties also experienced a high negative net migration, especially among younger populations, that significantly contributed to the population decline.
As the overall population of Alabama’s Black Belt decreases—especially among young people—the counties are experiencing a parallel economic decline. When population declines, so do basic services and infrastructure, leading to lower gross domestic product and outputs. This makes it more difficult to achieve economic growth, contributing to the disproportionately high poverty rate and food insecurity in the Black Belt.
Housing is also an issue for many people living in the Black Belt. Deep South Food Alliance has observed that some people live in mobile homes that lack access to adequate septic systems, preventing the safe disposal of human waste. This leads to improper disposal methods that create health and safety issues. In Dallas County, where Selma is located, homeownership is also few and far between: only 58 percent of people live in homes they own to co-own, a rate ten percent below the state average and 20 percent below the county with the highest homeownership rate. This gap in homeownership further widens when considering demographic factors, especially race. The gap between white and Black homeownership is the largest it has been in 100 years, with Black homeownership at 44 percent, 21 percent below the national average and 30 percent below the homeownership rate of white households. Stemming from the legacy of slavery and legal racial discrimination, the lower rates of Black homeownership contribute to the lack of accumulation and transfer of intergenerational wealth, increasing rates of poverty and food insecurity for Black families.
Notable disparities in the prevalence of excess adiposity exist alongside disproportionate homeownership rates. Although there is limited research on excess adiposity in the Black Belt, rates of excess adiposity in the Alabama Black Belt region exceeded 40 percent for several counties in 2018, a rate over ten percent higher than the national average. This disparity worsens when considering racial demographics, with Black Americans experiencing higher rates of excess adiposity, according to observations by the Deep South Food Alliance. Of note, many people in this area also have unhealthy eating habits, which increases rates of excess adiposity and frequently leads to health-related chronic diseases.
The declining youth population, inadequate housing, and high rates of excess adiposity are contributing to a weak food system in the Black Belt, and action should be taken to address these issues. The state should make radical changes to develop a food system that will train young people how to produce food and feed themselves and their families; without substantial changes in how people approach the food system, poverty and food insecurity will continue to persist in the Black Belt.
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The state should further integrate the community into the food system to make sustainable changes. Food production skills should be taught at school, specifically as it relates to the science and math that is involved in food production, management, and food processing. Funding resources that are proposed in the country to eliminate hunger by 2030 should be vested at the household and community level through community-based organizations that can provide technical assistance. Funding community-based efforts eliminates the issues land grant and other institutions face where funds are typically caught up in administrative needs and never get funneled to the ground level, which people need to improve their food intake. Involving a community-based organization in this effort will help ensure that implementation takes place to support in bringing about change in the West Alabama Black Belt area that will positively affect generations to come.
The state should also improve economic conditions related to food and agriculture in the West Alabama Black Belt. Improvements can be made in the following areas: access to operational capital for food system development; access to adequate markets; access to irrigation, labor, equipment, and cold storage management; and access to technology that benefits the needs of the community. Improving access to these resources will help level the playing field for rural farmers, and thus benefit the community as a whole. It will not immediately “solve” the issues of the declining youth population, housing instability, or excess adiposity, but it will help alleviate the burdens. Providing better access for farmers will create a firmer foundation for the community, and ultimately start reversing centuries of food insecurity and poverty.
In understanding the issues that the Black Belt faces, people can better address hunger and help create a sustainable food system. This will not happen overnight—widespread systemic change is required—but it creates opportunities for growth and development that do not exist presently. Recognizing the issues that face the Black Belt is the first step in developing a sustainable food system that benefits all.
Andrew Williams is the project director of the Deep South Food Alliance, a network of organizations, producers, and aggregators in southeast, central, and west Alabama and eastern Mississippi. Williams is also the CEO of the United Christian Community Association (TUCCA).
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